March 16, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: CHARACTER
There is a new WalMart going in near where I live. Part of the construction will involve widening the roads and installing a traffic signal. I’m not too excited. Not because I’m part of the anti-WalMart crowd. I know there are a lot of people who believe WalMarts are nothing but bad news for a local community. I don’t know about that, but I do know that this particular WalMart is being built at an intersection I use frequently on my runs. So it’s going to mess up my life while it’s being built. It already is. It’s a mess at the corner of Roosevelt and Middleton right now and it’s going to get a whole lot worse before it gets any better.
Construction zones are not our favorite places. They are chaotic. They are dangerous. They are ugly. They are inconvenient. I’m sure we’ve all had the experience of taking a trip and everything is going great, you are right on schedule, and then you have the wonderful good luck of coming upon a construction zone. All the traffic comes to a stand-still, and of course, the rest area you have been eagerly looking forward to for the last 60 miles is still 5 miles away.
On the other hand, when the construction is over, that eyesore that used to be such a nuisance, is now a thing of beauty. A beautiful new WalMart and traffic signal. On second thought, that’s not such a great example. Or a beautiful new library. Or a highway with new black pavement that is so smooth your car just floats along. How does it get from the ugly to the beautiful? There is a master plan. Somewhere in the process there is an architect or a project manager who has the vision of what the end result is supposed to look like.
There’s a television show my wife loves and I hate, though I have to admit that when I do start watching it’s hard to stop. It’s called “Property Brothers”. They are twins. One of them is the realtor and the other is the builder. They will tag team on a couple looking for a dream home they can afford. The typical episode has them starting with something that really looks quite bad, but these brothers have the gift of seeing how that same space could be transformed into something amazing. They have the vision. The construction is messy, and expensive. But the end result never fails to delight the couple that was never entirely convinced that the Property Brothers could deliver on their promise.
We are all under construction. We are all in the messy stage right now. But we have a great master designer. God sees the vision of the project when it’s completed. God sees that it’s going to be amazing. God wants us to see what God sees so that we won’t resist as God continues his construction project in us. So that God who began a good work in you and in me will bring it to completion.
That’s today’s memory verse. Philippians 1:6. It’s one of my favorites in the whole Bible. “And I am sure that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.”
Today we talk about character. Character can be defined as the real you. The deep down person that is not necessarily the same as the image of who you think you are, who other people think you are, or who you would like to be. It’s the messy you. The construction zone you. Someone has said character is what you do when no one is looking. Character is the honest measure of who you really are — how far you have come and how far you still have to go.
It’s interesting what the Bible says about our character. The Bible has the most optimistic view of who we are and the same Bible has the most pessimistic view. The Bible says that we are each a budding angel and the same Bible says that we are each a hopeless sinner. The Bible says we were created in the image of God and the same Bible says we have rejected our birthright and adopted the advice of Frank Sinatra. “I’ll do it my way.” C.S. Lewis said that each one of us has within us this hidden potential to become very, very good or very, very bad. He said, “There are no ordinary people . . . the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.”
So which is the truth about who we really are? Budding angel or hopeless sinner? The truth, according to the Bible is that we are both. We can become either. The determining factor is whether we allow our Creator to keep working on the construction project that each of us is. Because you see, the Bible is pessimistic about you and me. But the Bible is never pessimistic about God and about what God can do when God gets to work on us and in us.
Your character right now might be in the pits. You might be fooling yourself or fooling others, but deep down, you know better. You are far from the person God wants you to be. So what do you do about it? The Bible is clear. The first step is to repent. To see that real self hidden beneath all those layers of pretense. To say, “I’m sorry.” To turn around. To change your mind. That’s the literal meaning of the New Testament word for repentance. Metanoia. To change your mind and to say “yes” to God.
That’s the first step. And most of us fight this first step like crazy. We deny that we need it. Repentance is for other people, we say. Or we postpone it. We’ll get around to it eventually. Kind of like going to the dentist. But here’s the thing: as long as we refuse to admit there is anything wrong with us, it’s impossible for us to get well. It’s impossible for God to get to work on us. To get help we have to reach the point of recognizing that we need help.
When we get there, that’s when it starts getting interesting! Because that’s when we discover God’s grace. If we take a short cut to God’s grace too early, that grace becomes what Dietrich Bonheoffer called “cheap grace”. That’s grace as a license to keep living the low character life that you’ve been living all along. You just say, “Oh well, God will forgive me,” and you continue on your merry way. But when we truly have humbled ourselves before God, when we have come face to face with the hard truth that our way isn’t working, when we have truly repented, then God’s grace is no longer “cheap grace”. God’s grace is suddenly “costly grace”. “Infinitely valuable grace”. God’s grace becomes the most wonderful truth of the universe.
Because God accepts us just as we are. God forgives us. And God, the master builder, goes to work on us. Not superficial work. Not just putty and spackle. Not just paint and varnish. But deep work. Character work. God changes us from the inside out. And the grace part of it is that God doesn’t first require us to do a thing to prove our worthiness. We aren’t worthy. That’s a given. But God accepts us just as we are. And God begins that good work in us that God will be faithful to bring to completion.
It’s amazing how quickly a construction project can be completed when all resources are unleashed to get the job done. When we built our home here in Nampa, we were standing in the middle of a vacant lot two months before we walked in the front door of our finished home. When the “Property Brothers” go to work, the transformation is also complete in an amazingly short time.
With you and me, it’s going to take a little longer. We just need to be honest about this. The raw material you and I provide to our master builder is just a little more difficult to work with. So it’s going to take some time. It’s going to require some patience. On our part, and especially on the part of those who live with us. In those construction zones, have you noticed they often have signs thanking those who have been inconvenienced for their patience? We should wear signs like that around our necks. Please be patient, God isn’t finished with me yet.
Often people ask me what makes the UnitedMethodistChurch different from other churches. The first thing I always say is that in most respects, we are not different. We are right down the line on the traditional orthodox understanding of what it means to be a Christian. But there is one doctrine that our founder, John Wesley, emphasized and that therefore we emphasize. It isn’t a Methodist doctrine. It’s all through the Bible. It’s the doctrine of sanctification. “Sanctus” means “holy”. “Ficare” means “to make”. So “sanctification” means “to make holy”. It is the process of becoming more holy, more Christ-like, more and more the person our master designer envisioned the day we were created.
What Wesley taught about sanctification is that Christians are always in the process of being sanctified. We are on our way to perfection. We are becoming ever more the people God wants us to be. And that process takes time. It takes a lifetime. Being a Christian is not a destination. It is a journey.
The wrinkles on the faces of those of us who have lived a few years are sometimes referred to an “character lines”. It takes a long time to earn them! It’s been said that beautiful young people are accidents of nature, but beautiful old people are works of art. Our character, let’s hope, is developing right along with those character lines. Let’s hope that sanctification is well under way. That God who began a good work in us is getting closer each day to the day that construction project will be complete.
One man who exemplified character is a man whose name we are going to be hearing in this month of March Madness. John Wooden set a record in college basketball that will likely never be broken. He won 10 NCAA basketball championships, including 7 in a row. I mentioned a while back that I keep meeting people who knew Coach Wooden. One of them is Julie Vermillion’s dad. Another one is our bishop, Grant Hagiya.
Last week I mentioned Bishop Hagiya’s book, Spiritual Kaizen. He has a section in that book about Coach Wooden. They sat down once for a one-on-one interview. He talked about the development of basketball skills in his players. At UCLA, when he got them, they were already pretty good. But inevitably, they were much, much better after he had coached them. Here is what he said:
My expectations are that they do not try to become better than somebody else, but that each day they must try to improve themselves a little. I tried to get that across to them: try to improve a little each day. Don’t expect to improve a lot, but a little, and as the days go by, that little each day will soon amount to a lot.
Coaches sometimes will refer to a player with raw potential but not much else as a “project”. We are all “projects” in that sense as far as God is concerned. And we don’t go from not very good to All-American overnight. It takes time. A little improvement each day eventually amounts to a lot.
They also talked about this subject of character. John Wooden has a famous quote about character. “Your character is what you really are, your reputation is only what others think you are.” He expanded on that in his interview with our bishop.
I have always said that your character . . . you’re the only one who really knows your character. Your reputation is what you are perceived to be by others . . . it is not necessarily what you really are. It could be, but it isn’t necessarily so. But your character is what you really are and you are the only one that knows that, and in the long run you should definitely be more concerned with your character than your reputation.
In this season of Lent, as we prepare to celebrate Easter, let’s be concerned about our character. That’s the person we really are. That’s the person God sees when God looks at us. God sees the finished product. God has his eye on the masterpiece you and I will one day be. But God knows even better than we that construction is still underway, and there is still a lot of work to be done.
And on the way — as each of us is somewhere in between hopeless sinner and budding angel — on the way, if we can improve a little each day it won’t be long before it will amount to a lot. So before we get to completion, perfection, sanctification, whatever we call it — before we become the masterpieces our master designer intends for us to one day be, we would do well to listen to one more bit of advice from the greatest basketball coach who ever lived. Simply this: “Make each day your masterpiece.”
Dear God, we are characters, each one of us. But we pray that you will build character in us. We are pieces of work. We all are. But God, we pray that by your master design we might become works of art. We are sinners, we are saints; we are fit for heaven, we deserve hell. We are full of complications and contradictions. But thank you God that we are saved by grace, not by works. Thank you that you are able to do in us abundantly more than we could ever ask or think. Thank you that you have begun in us something good and that one day the project will be complete. In Jesus’ name, Amen.